This article from the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and Sweden’s Sveriges Television (SVT) is part of an investigation in which Courthouse News Service and NBC News are partners.
By all outward appearances, Hatam Khatoun Nema was a small-time money changer working from a nondescript office in Järfälla, a workaday Stockholm suburb.
In reality, the Swedish-Iranian businessman ran an obscure Hong Kong company, H M E A CO., LIMITED, that laundered hundreds of millions of dollars through a web of shell companies and businesses stretching from Singapore to Panama.
A major customer of Nema’s operation was the Islamic Republic of Iran. Between 2012 and 2014, he helped move payments for the oil that Iran sold to China, its most important trading partner and geopolitical ally.
The network allowed Chinese energy companies to hide the oil payments, which could bring U.S. scrutiny and possible sanctions for violating restrictions on dollar-based trading with Iran.
To circumvent crippling international economic sanctions aimed at stifling its nuclear program, Iran has long engaged in subterfuge to continue oil exports. Iran’s efforts to access the proceeds of its oil exports have pushed large swathes of its trade and foreign exchange market underground, entrusting enormous wealth to international criminal networks.
The illicit money flows have made massive fortunes for those willing to take risks.
Reza Zarrab, a Turkish-Iranian money launderer who became infamous after his 2016 arrest in Miami, pleaded guilty to bank fraud and money laundering in moving money for Iran. For years Zarrab rubbed shoulders with Turkey’s elite, including President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and flaunted outrageous wealth and an excessive lifestyle around the world.
But while Zarrab and his wife, a famous Turkish pop star, lived in the limelight, no one noticed the likes of Nema, whose low-key operation from a gray bungalow on the outskirts of Stockholm did much the same work for the same client.
Unlike Zarrab, Nema has faced no charges for helping Iran evade sanctions. He remains at large.
OCCRP, Sweden’s Sveriges Television (SVT), the U.S. Courthouse News Service, NBC News, and other media partners spent months examining financial records, including bank transactions from the U.S. investigation of Zarrab, of Turkey’s state-owned Halkbank, and of the bank’s former director, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, who helped Zarrab move billions of dollars for Iran. It’s unclear if U.S. officials were even aware of Nema’s network. Prosecutors declined comment for this story.
The records reveal multiple covert financial networks, including Hong Kong-based groups centered on Nema’s HMEA.
He incorporated the company in March 2012, less than a month after President Barack Obama signed an executive order prohibiting U.S.-linked banks from handling most transactions involving Iran.
The pressure was meant to bring Iran to the negotiating table — and it did. In July 2015, the U.S., Iran, China, Russia, the UK, and the European Union announced the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, popularly known as the Iran deal, which envisaged an end to Iran’s nuclear activities in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.
But even while participating in the negotiations, China continued its dollar trade with Iran through underground networks and proxy companies.
Claiming only HK$10,000 (less than US$1,300) in registered capital, and with no stated business purpose, HMEA moved at least $450 million between 2012 and 2014, the period covered by transaction records obtained by OCCRP.
The money, which flowed through accounts at seven international banks, included at least $100 million in transactions with oil industry-related companies, and at least $130 million in transfers through obscure entities linked to criminal networks and sanction-busting schemes.